Friday, May 28, 2021

Violence and Non-Violence in Yoga and Buddhism

One of my yoga students approached me with an interesting question today. Here's how the Q&A unfolded....


"What does “violence” mean in the Yama (Yogic ethical precept) about practicing non-violence? Is violence never justified?" 


I’m not fond of translating that particular Yama with the English term "non-violence." It evokes certain things that are not germane to the ethical principle we're talking about. The Sanskrit word for this Yama (which, by the way, is also the foundation of Buddhist ethics, using the same Sanskrit word) is “Ahimsa”. "Himsa" means “harm” and "a-" is a negating prefix, so a more literal translation of "Ahimsa" is simply "non-harming." It’s the ethical commitment to try to avoid creating harm, and to reduce harm as much as possible.

Some people say “violence is never justified," but I believe that (while well-intentioned) this is something of a empty platitude. I mean, look. Reducing harm in World War II meant annihilating Hitler and the Nazis with violence and destruction. This is not up for debate. At a certain point, violence towards Nazis became the moral imperative. Their unchecked aggression and their murderous, genocidal actions were spreading like wildfire, and needed to be destroyed with an equal or greater show of violent force, for the sake of all humanity. Period. Full stop. 🛑  

So while it may not be often, I do believe violence is sometimes justified, in order to protect the greater good and eradicate very harmful situations.

In the Jataka Tales — which are moral stories or fables about the Buddha's previous lives — there's a story about him being on a boat with many, many other people, and knowing that one wicked man on the boat was planning to sink the boat and drown everyone. So he killed that man in order to save the lives of the many other people on the boat. In doing so, he took on the negative karma of killing, but it was in the greater interest of protecting so many other lives from being destroyed. That could be another example of reducing harm.

If you were on a crowded plane and the person in the row in front of you stood up with a gun and a hijacking threat, and you knew (okay, let's chalk it up to your extensive martial arts training and your lightning reflexes) that you had a very brief but viable window of opportunity to take him down through a swift and unexpected attack from behind, what would be the right and ethical thing to do? Would you choose to respect the life and safety of the terrorist over the lives and safety of the other 300 passengers and crew on the plane? Think about this.

In Tibetan Buddhism there are many "deities" or spirits and some are depicted as "protectors" of the teachings and of those who practice the teachings. There are peaceful deities and there are wrathful deities. Most of the "protector" spirits manifest as wrathful energies. They are depicted iconographically as angry, scary, demonic-looking figures who brandish fierce weapons and often hold severed heads in their hands or dance on corpses (which represent the ego and all its bullsh*t). They cut through what needs to be cut through, they restrain what needs to be restrained, and in some cases they destroy what needs to be destroyed.

An example of wrathful protector energy manifesting in everyday life might be the moment when you're about to go into the other room to yell at your spouse or your coworker, but as you're closing the door behind you, you slam your fingers in the door. BOOM! Suddenly you're stopped dead in your tracks, and there's this moment of shock. You didn't want it, but there it is. You've just received a sharp, painful reminder to pay attention to what you're doing.

I have a fair amount of wrathful protector energy in me. People often perceive me as being very gentle and soft-spoken and perhaps a "Yes" man, but in doing so they're only seeing one side of my nature. I can also be very cutting and direct and manifest a strong "No!" energy. In my understanding, it is part of the path of awakening to learn how to experience ALL of our energies, and learn how to utilize them skillfully. Sometimes, skillfully channeling our wisdom energies may look like a peaceful, smiling Buddha or an angel, but other times it may look like a scary demon or a wrathful protector who cuts through what needs to be cut through, without hesitation.

Like, BOOM! Stop it with this harmful bullsh*t, right now! And if you don't, then you're going to face the consequences. And I have a box in my hand, full of those consequences, and it's wrapped up with a bow and it has your name on it. You want to open this box? Are you feeling lucky? It's that kind of energy. 

Wise compassion isn't always syrupy sweet and gentle and passive, being a doormat and letting every harmful situation play itself out endlessly. We have a term for that in Buddhism: it's called "idiot compassion."


"Thank you. This is good food for thought. I was thinking of this in relation to sports or shows. Lots of what you could consider violence going on."


Yes. It’s important to be mindful of the images of violence you consume, and be aware of how they affect your mind and your nervous system. As Ben Okri wrote, "Beware of the stories you read or tell; subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world."

I really enjoy some violent movies like Kill Bill, where the violence is cartoonish, and mixed with dark humor, and it's sort of all in good fun. And each viewer, each consumer of images, is unique; I'm simply describing my own tolerance and proclivities here. "Kill Bill" does not negatively impact my mind-stream or leave me feeling nauseated afterwards. In fact, it makes me laugh and I can identify a lot with Uma Thurman's character: her ability to be 100% befuddled and vulnerable in one moment, seemingly hopeless, and then to bounce back in the next moment with a fierceness and a furious commitment to what she perceives as justice.

I DO NOT enjoy movies like the “Hostel” or “Saw" franchises or any of their ilk, which are basically fictionalized snuff films where the violence is pornographic, and you just watch psychopathic people killing and torturing other people because they enjoy watching them suffer and die (we're sort of back to talking about Nazis again) and there’s no point in the depiction of violence other than to indulge in images of graphic violence and killing for their own sake, to derive some very morbid and sociopathic kind of titillation. Those kinds of violent films leave me feeling deeply, spiritually nauseated.  

Likewise, whenever the 45th President of the United States (and voilà! for the third time in this Q&A we are talking about Nazis who needed to be stopped) used to come on the TV screen — and thank God that doesn't happen much anymore these days — I would have to turn it off or leave the room. Or if I'm in a public space and they set the TV to Fox News — same thing. What slithers off the TV screen and into your mind from Fox News is so painfully grotesque and spiritually violent that it nauseates me. 

I boycott these violent images and discourses. They do not have permission to enter or occupy my mind-space. For me, that's part of practicing self-care, reducing the harm that would potentially be done to my mind and my heart by absorbing such hateful and belligerently ignorant rhetoric and images. It's not burying my head in the sand. It's fierce and compassionate self-protection. Ahimsa.